WASHINGTON — Snap back? Not so fast.
The biggest enforcement provision in the preliminary nuclear agreement with Iran is turning into one of the mostly hotly contested elements. And the debate barely involves Iran.
Instead, it concerns the Obama administration's promise to quickly re-impose sanctions on Iran if the Islamic Republic cheats on any part of the agreement to limit its nuclear program to peaceful pursuits.
This would be relatively straightforward for the sanctions imposed by the U.S., as Congress is eager to keep the pressure on. But it is far from clear whether President Barack Obama can guarantee such action at the United Nations, which has imposed wide-ranging penalties that all U.N. members must enforce.
At present, there's no firm agreement on how or when to lift the sanctions in the first place. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, and President Hassan Rouhani said Thursday they want all sanctions lifted on the first day of implementation. That's not the position of U.S. and other negotiators, a major issue that still must be worked out.
Assuming it can be, that still would leave the big question of possible re-imposition.
The disagreement on this issue is between the U.S. and its European allies on one side, and Russia and China on the other — all countries involved in the nuclear negotiations. And even though all six world powers and Iran agreed last week to the framework agreement that is supposed to be finalized by June 30, the "snapback" mechanism for U.N. sanctions remains poorly defined and may prove unworkable.
"If Iran violates the deal, sanctions can be snapped back into place," Obama declared last week.
He went further this week, saying that restoring the international sanctions would not require consensus among U.N. Security Council members. And Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who helped seal last week's pact, insisted "no one country could block the snapback."
That assertion rests on an informal compromise reached at the talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, to bypass the typical U.N. Security Council process if Iran breaks the agreement. Normally in that body, any one of the five permanent members — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China, which are all party to the Iran negotiations — can veto resolutions.
But many questions remain, including what would happen if two or more countries object. Russia and China have traditionally opposed almost all U.N. sanctions measures, and, perhaps tellingly, neither country's foreign minister was present when the April 2 framework was unveiled.
Washington and its negotiating partners plan to suspend or lift many sanctions after the U.N. nuclear agency confirms Iran has scaled back its activity in accordance with a final deal. But the U.S. and its European partners want the capacity to quickly reinstate the restrictions if Iran reneges.
The U.N. sanctions ban the transfer of nuclear and ballistic missile technology to Iran, freeze assets of companies and individuals involved in the country's uranium enrichment program, impose an arms embargo on Iran and sharply limit the international activities of Iranian banks. All are penalties the U.S. wants fully enforced if Iran doesn't comply with a final deal.
The Obama administration is tossing around different ideas to ensure it can snap back the U.N. sanctions, though there are problems with all of them.
One idea would put the burden on the U.N. Security Council. Rather than voting to re-impose sanctions, it would have to vote to stop the automatic re-imposition, officials said. Or, an extraordinary procedure could be created with the permanent, veto-holding members voting by majority.
Russia and China are unlikely to accept any process that sees them sacrifice their veto power. And they could block any plan with Iran that would leave them powerless to stop majority votes by the U.S. and its European allies.
In each scenario and others, the final agreement will include "automaticity," the sense of sanctions returning automatically, a senior U.S. official said. That official and the others weren't authorized to speak publicly on the deliberations and demanded anonymity.
In an interview with NPR Monday, Obama said the sanctions would be "triggered" when the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency identified a "very real problem" and a majority of countries involved agreed. But that process also is undefined — and slow.
The IAEA's 35-nation board includes countries sympathetic to Iran. Also members are Russia and China, powers that are concerned about the country's nuclear ambitions yet seek closer commercial, economic, military and even nuclear ties. The organization's rulings can take weeks, months and even years.
Further complicating matters, a U.S. fact sheet released after the diplomatic breakthrough in Switzerland mentions a "dispute resolution process" that would enable Iran or anyone else to raise disagreements and seek compromises through mediation — yet another element officials say hasn't been agreed to in detail.
"I don't want to give the false impression that we have all this resolved," Obama said this week.
Questions are everywhere. In the buildup to the framework, French officials questioned if the U.N. sanctions could be snapped back into place at all. They suggested the U.N. penalties be kept in place for years.
In Congress, lawmakers threatening to get involved in Obama's diplomacy are concerned as well. Sen. Ben Cardin, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top Democrat, is among those asking about snapback sanctions.
"Undertaking the 'snapback' of sanctions is unlikely to be as clear or as automatic as the phrase implies," former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz said in a joint opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal.
"Restoring the most effective sanctions will require coordinated international action," they wrote. With commercial interests and popular opinion swaying some countries against a prompt snapback, any U.S. attempt at forcing such a move "risks primarily isolating America, not Iran."